We sat in the diner for a good ten minutes before we realised that we were the only people talking aloud. There were eight other people there, a good six of them staring into space and old man at the counter who turned the pages of the newspaper and slurped his way through a bowl of clam chowder and a cup of coffee.
The waitress walked around to each of them. She physically asked the old man if he was okay, and he gave an eager smile, told her how good the chowder was before returning to his food. Dee wrinkled her nose and giggled as the waitress came over. She blinked heavily, confused by our lack of reaction to the telltale blink that indicated a message being passed.
Not received, though.
‘It’s okay.’ I said.
‘We don’t have it. Can’t really.’ Dee said.
The waitress frowned and gave a sigh of genuine sympathy. She asked if we were okay, and her voice boomed in the subdued quiet of the afternoon. The tinkle of cutlery against plates, the glottal slurps of drinks taken once again became the only sound. It forced Dee and I to talk in whispers.
We had met after surgery in the medical centre. Her, recovering from a head on collision and me after a vicious bout of meningitis that became a shut down restart for my ability to do the most basic things. When you are learning to dress yourself again, you don’t consider the long term. Lifting a spoon to your mouth was a victory. Tying your laces warranted a parade.
We bonded over that, and the bad times, when the pain was beyond what the medicine could touch. When your body, in its attempts to wrestle free of its ruination, became a stranger to us. Dee moved in with us when she was discharged. She had lost her parents and her brother in the crash, and her aunt hid her relief at not having to alter her lifestyle to accommodate a scarred and angry teenager.
Dee was the first to find out that she could never get fitted. She was more upset by the fact that I wasn’t bothered about it than her own rejection. She limped around our shared room, smoking and swearing at the indignity of it all.
‘It was bad enough when you had to have it on your phone, Dee. You should be grateful.’
She should. She wasn’t. Not when everyone else had signed up for the app with the fervour of the religious convert. Celebrities as high priests and shareholders, sharing the video of the procedures and even referencing it in their songs and screenplays.
PHOUGHT was social media software and hardware. A small injection, under local anaesthetic, and a cluster of nanobots wove a web of artificial neurons with ports to the ocular and auditory nerves and using the bone to conduct vibrations. It all ported up to the cloud and hey presto you could literally post every thought and sensation to your account. Interact with other users at the speed of thought.
The magic of it, though, did not charm everyone. Cue the heated discussions in government and on the news, which cooled down as market forces rushed in and washed it all away. When you could watch a movie star’s colonic irrigation session and hear her discuss how much weight she put on for her last role, then privacy became something quaint. Novel.
Dee may have been willing to sacrifice the privacy of her own head. It never occurred to me to do otherwise
Hindsight made that conversation interesting. Poignant.
We walked home, took the back roads to avoid the traffic. It was mostly drones and self-driven cars by then. Let people have more time to ‘phink’, which was part of the whole raft of words that came with the app. We avoided the roads, not because we valued silence, but we valued genuine, human silence.
There were huge stretches of the country that were virtually silent. Not the warm, comfortable quiet of people but the insectile void of conversation. Millions of conversations and all of them inaudible and invisible. Staring into space rather than a device.
We talked about it on the way home. We were in a space between the persons we had been and the people we wanted to be. Accommodated to our capabilities and irritated by our ambitions. We believed that there was work ahead, but good, comfortable lives were within our grasp.
How wrong we were.
The car alarms were screaming as we turned onto our street.
Harry Roper who lived two doors down, he was thrashing on his lawn, clutching at his head and screaming until his voice became a metallic, grinding rasp. I limped over to him, but he did not register me until he rolled onto his side and tucked his knees close to his chest.
He kept plucking up the courage to ask Dee out and choked every time, and when she said his name, he turned and looked at her, through her and started to get up. His face was a taut, twitching mask of want as he moved towards her. He ignored me entirely, which allowed me to bring my cane up and swing it across the bridge of his nose.
I honestly thought it was bath salts. He fell backwards, but did not clutch his nose. I grabbed Dee by the hand and pushed her ahead of me.
‘What’s happening?’ she said.
I shoved her ahead of me, told her to run as Harry got to his feet again.
It pissed me off that he had never asked me out. Forgot how we used to play house in the wooden treehouse at the back of my yard. I baked him mud pies and this was how he repaid me. I begged him to stay down, but he grinned at me, his cheeks and chin black with blood as he started to move past me.
Two swings and he stayed down. I staggered back to the house. My parents were getting up, and Dee clutched at me as I locked the door behind me.
We called the police, but no one answered.
When we told my parents, their faces went from sleepy to concerned in a second. Dad went to the gun cabinet, Mom switched on the news and we all stood there, trying to figure out what had happened.
My parents were too old to consider Phought to be something worth considering. They had friends, colleagues who were passionate advocates. Dee and I tried to calculate which of our friends might be affected. The raw screaming weight of numbers proved too much to calculate with any degree of clarity.
You know about the rest.
The nests built from scrap metal. The raiding parties to implant people. The changes that made most of the Eastern Seaboard a silent monastery of insect efficiency, building bizarre structures with no obvious utility.
The friends and family that you had to deal with.
How a dentist or a pharmacist becomes akin to a tribal shaman when the infrastructure succumbs under the weight of alien will.
It is still Dee and I. My parents got us out of the state, but they got taken in a raid on a safe house just outside Meade. I watched hands clawing at them as they pleaded for us both to run.
Dee and I still talk.
It feels like something we have to do. We bear the scars and weariness of being human because we’ve seen what happens when it is relinquished.
Not what you were expecting? There’s a tonne of people who have better stories than me, but I’m glad you came by.
It’s really important for me to have someone listen.
There’s so few people around to do that anymore.